The Buzz

Watch Out, America: North Korea Wants Carrier-Killer Missiles

North Korea says its latest missile test was aimed at demonstrating its capability to sink American aircraft carriers, South Korean media reported.

On Monday, North Korea conducted its latest ballistic test in Wonsan, in the eastern part of the country. The missile, believed to be a version of its Scud-C missile, traveled roughly 250 miles (four hundred kilometers) before falling into the Sea of Japan.

Immediately following the test, North Korea said it was aimed at demonstrating a new maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV), which allows the warhead to make inflight corrections during its terminal phase to greatly improve accuracy. “The present test-fire aimed at verifying the technological indices of the new-type precision guided ballistic rocket capable of making ultra-precision strike on the enemies’ objects at any area,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

The report further claimed that the missile landed within seven meters of its intended target, which would be shockingly accurate. According to Yonhap News Agency, a South Korean publication, North Korea’s normal Scud missiles have a circular error probable (CEP), a commonly used accuracy measurement, of between 450 and 1,000 meters, while China’s much-discussed carrier-killer missile has a CEP of thirty to forty meters.

The same Yonhap report said that North Korea “asserted” the newly accurate missile was meant to demonstrate North Korea’s ability “to strike moving targets at sea with precision.”

That claim was not included in KCNA’s English-language report on the missile test, but U.S. officials did raise that concern in earlier failed tests of what was believed at the time to be the same Scud-variant tested on Monday. The Yonhap report went on to claim that “the North’s pursuit of its own anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), often called an ‘aircraft carrier killer,’ is an open secret.”

North Korea’s claim was likely intended to intimidate the Trump administration, which has frequently used carrier deployments as shows of force in the face of Pyongyang’s provocations.  America currently has two carrier strike groups deployed near North Korea, and recent reports suggest that another may be on its way. That is highly unusual. As James Fanell, a former intel officer with U.S. Pacific Command, told Gordon Chang, “I served in the U.S. Navy from 1986 to 2015, and I do not remember a time that the U.S. has ever deployed three aircraft carrier strike groups to the Korean peninsula.”

That being said, North Korea’s claim to have the ability to strike U.S. aircraft carriers is outlandish. To begin with, although it is impossible to verify exactly how accurate the missile is, it is inconceivable that it is CEP is measured in single-digit meters. Indeed, Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), tells the National Interest, “Over the long term, NK might hope to substantially improve accuracy using a MaRV, much like the Chinese do with their DF-15.  But achieving greater precision will require many years of development and testing.  It is worth noting that the Soviets developed the Scud-VTO, or Aerofan, over the course of almost two decades.”

John Schilling, an aerospace expert, concurs, telling The National Interest, "developing a maneuvering reentry vehicle is a technically challenging task which will likely require many test flights. It took the United States eight years to develop the Pershing II, and four years from the first test flight to operational deployment.  North Korea, lacking the industrial resources of the United States and largely isolated from the world economy, will likely take somewhat longer even if this is a high-priority program for them.”

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